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Sunday, 2 September 2018

On Ukraine, Not Meeting Alla Plachkova and a Week of Drinking Differently

A summer trip to Ukraine

It is a little over 25 years since my first trip to Ukraine; in 1992, it was a newly independent country, somewhere on the cusp of moving from being Soviet Republic to becoming a brashly capitalist, Wild-East, oligarch's playground.

I had previously been to the Soviet Union, but had no real reference points - everything seemed very foreign, very backward and extremely chaotic; I could never tell whether the swathes of men in uniform and babushkas in headscarves that one came across constantly were there to maintain control or preserve the chaos.

I had been taught at university that Ukraine was essentially a province of Russia, its language a dialect, with at best its own local accent and regional identity. In this Russo-centric world, Ukraine was an unsophisticated peasant country, one where Stalin's holodomor of the 1930s was a crop-failure, rather than a deliberate act of state genocide against Ukrainians.
Historically, Ukraine is much older than present-day Russia; its capital, Kyiv, begat Kievan Rus' which itself was the origin of Russia, Belarus and modern-day Ukraine. Christianity came to Kyiv through the conversion of Volodymyr the Great in 988; it was only several hundred years later, with the Mongol Golden Horde in decline, that the younger and weaker city of Moscow was appointed capital of Rus'.

Like the Siamese fighting fish scene in James Bond, the Mongols knew that the Princely States of Rus' would first battle each other for local dominance before moving on to attack the retreating Horde.

Cynical, cruel and pragmatic; whilst the West was experiencing the Renaissance, the Mongols gave Russia extensive lessons in despotism.

Like any country born into strange and chaotic times, modern-day Ukraine has experienced the aftershocks and upheavals of newly-acquired statehood; revolutions in 1991 (independence), 2004 ("Orange"), and 2014 ("Euromaidan") have shaped the country's desire for a pro-European independence. Russian interference via the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine show that it cannot yet fully escape the clutches of its past.

But the capital Kyiv now feels more or less like any other European city - in a good way - manifested by a pervasive and fundamental European openness to new ideas, as if there is no longer a need for the state to hold a monopoly on the truth, as if people can be trusted to get on with their own lives without constant oversight or interference.

With openness comes a greater sophistication, experienced as everyday-life improvements; gone are the dull, functional state shops, barking Russian tones and locally-made Ladas to be replaced with Ukrainian as the official, as well de facto, lingua franca, a European dress sense and the suburban, continental-style supermarkets with freshly-baked bread, cheese counter and aisle of wines. Order, openness and plurality; these are the cornerstones of a democratic country.


I was due to meet Ukrainian winemaker Alla Plachkova of Kolonist at upmarket wine shop GoodWine a few streets into the hinterland of central Kyiv; I had tried her wines previously in London (see here) and was sufficiently intrigued to set up a meeting. Unfortunately, a combination of public transport issues and poor travel advice left me waiting at a bus stop miles away and I had to send my apologies.

And so we drank local:

- Kvas; made from fermented black bread (usually, but there is also a white version) it is fresh, fizzy and yeasty with the flavour of dark rye bread.

- Coffee (and chocolates); from the Lviv Handmade Chocolate cafe. Once part of the Austrian Empire, Lviv has a long affinity with coffee on a par with Vienna (see here).

- Zhigulivske Videnske ("Viennese") beer; a malty, golden ale, crisp and saline with a lightly hopy finish. Clean, well-made and easy drinking.

- fruit wines; made from cherries and blackcurrants, these home-made wines were a revelation, fresh, intense and vibrant. Who needs grapes?

We also ate well at Very Well Cafe, just off Kreshchatik near Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Food for the soul came from the various churches, cathedrals and monasteries - Saint Sophia's dates back to Kievan Rus' times and is UNESCO-protected; the gilded, baroque St Andrew's grandly overlooks the river Dnipro not far from author Mikhail Bulgakov's house (now a museum); Byzantine Revival St Volodymyr's is the mother cathedral of Ukrainian orthodxy and the Pechersk Lavra, the caves monastery, dates back to 1051 and is also UNESCO-protected.

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